The Atlanta Braves planned all winter long for Mike Hampton to be apart of its 2007 starting rotation. But on Wednesday, March 7th at Disney's Wide World of Sports the plans changed. Hampton, who had missed the past season and a half after undergoing Tommy John Surgery, went down with an oblique injury in batting practice.
The original diagnosis was for Hampton to miss four to six weeks, but the whispers of whether or not his elbow would be ready were already quite loud. The next day the Braves decided to sign a reinforcement in free agent lefty Mark Redman, who had suspiciously been left unsigned throughout the winter months.
In a way the 2007 season ended right there in Orlando. Redman would eventually become the first of many rotation replacements that would try and fail to replace Hampton. And when news broke on April 11th that Hampton would indeed need more surgery on his left elbow, you had a feeling it might be a long season.
Redman was a disaster. He was perhaps the worst starting pitcher in two decades with the Braves. But unfortunately his replacements were not much better, and an organization that created a legacy of outstanding starting pitching instead saw that same element become the Achilles' Heel in 2007.
John Smoltz and Tim Hudson were great, but after that… well when people are trying to find rhymes to mimic ‘Spahn and Sain and pray for rain' you know there was trouble in the starting rotation. The Braves had two real dependable starters in 2007, and after that it was a crap shoot.
Atlanta's starting rotation had an ERA of 4.45 this season, but after Smoltz and Hudson that ERA was 5.53. If you then take away Chuck James and look at the fourth and fifth starters, the ERA for those two spots in the rotation was 6.16.
The non-Smoltz and Hudson starters were a combined 28-40 in 96 games. The Braves got a quality start only 29% of the time from their fourth and fifth starters. If the other three spots in the rotation had just been at .500 the Braves would have won the National League East by one game over the Philadelphia Phillies.
With Hampton out the Braves had to move Chuck James up to the third spot in the rotation and Kyle Davies up to the fourth position. Both were unable to handle the responsibility, as James struggled pitching past the sixth inning and Davies could not gain Bobby Cox's trust. James then battled arm trouble late in the year, while the Braves decided to move on without Davies, trading him to the Royals on trade deadline day for Octavio Dotel.
Mediocrity in the rotation resulted in streaks of real mediocre baseball. The Braves were unable to put together anything more than a five-game winning streak. They did that three different times. But when they needed to put together a stretch of thirteen wins in seventeen games, as the Phillies did to end the season, the starting rotation would not allow it. The inconsistency from the starters killed any hopes for a big run at a playoff spot.
The season started so promising too that it seems so strange how mediocre it became. The Braves were 24-12 after the game on Saturday, May 12th in Pittsburgh and led the National League Esat by a game and a half. But the next day the Pirates won 13-2. From that game, on Mother's Day, through the end of August the Braves went 45-55 in the next 100 games. By the end of August they were five and a half games behind the New York Mets.
The pitching was not the only mediocre element of this team. The offense sputtered at times, most noticably when the Braves scored only one run in a five-game losing streak between June 19th and June 24th.
Atlanta bounced back after that horrible stretch and won nine of its next thirteen heading into the All-Star Break. The Mets lead was only two games, so the Braves believed they were still in the race. But the hope was short-lived despite opening the second half with a three-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cincinnati Reds turned around and swept a three-game set from the Braves pretty much negating the Pirates sweep. The ten-game home stand to start the second half was, not surprisingly, a mediocre 5-5.
There was a four-game losing streak on the road that was particularly troubling. Atlanta lost two in San Francisco and then two against the Diamondbacks. Three of those four losses were by one run, and the two games in Phoenix were extra-inning losses that were devastating.
The last nail was perhaps on August the 8th in New York. The Braves were down 4-3 going into the top of the ninth inning against the Mets. They loaded the bases with nobody out. Jeff Francoeur hit into a force out at the plate and then Andruw Jones hit into a double play to end the game. It gave the Mets tremendous momentum as they tried to separate themselves from the Braves in the National League East.
Atlanta's play against the Mets was also a factor. The Braves won eight of the first twelve games played between the two teams, winning two out of three in the first four series. But in the last two three-game series, toward the end of the year, the Mets handled the Braves with ease. New York swept the three-game set in Atlanta to start the month of September, and then took two of three in Gotham in mid-September. That's different from the Phillies, who beat the Mets the last eight times they played to sneak up and, eventually, win the division.
The Braves can also point to Interleague play as a problem. Atlanta had the worst record in the National League in Interleague action going 4-11. And as Chipper Jones loudly pointed out, the competition was also unfair as the Braves took on the Red Sox (twice), Indians, Tigers, and Twins, while the Mets and Phillies both had easier schedules.
While the team batting average (.275) was good enough for second in the league and the Braves were third in runs scored, the offense did sputter at times. And it all points to number twenty-five to lead off. Andruw Jones had a horrific season hitting .222 (lowest in his career) with 26 home runs and 94 runs batted in.
Despite what his agent will try to do this winter, there is no way to spin this season for Jones, who in his contract season was expected to put up monster numbers. Jones hit only .171 in May and June with 7 home runs and 27 runs batted in. His average was below .200 as late as July 5th, and he had only one three-hit game in the season's first three months.
Braves' Manager Bobby Cox perhaps waited too long to move Jones out of the cleanup spot. For most of the season Jones was simply a rally killer, destroying too many big innings to even remember with a popup or strikeout. It took the trade for Mark Teixeira to finally get Jones down in the batting order.
Atlanta also put a lot of stock into Scott Thorman to replace Adam LaRoche at first base, but a horrible first half forced the Braves to look for a replacement. Thorman hit .288 in April, but from May 1st through the end of July he hit only .203 with seven home runs and 23 RBI in 202 at bats.
Mike Gonzalez was counted on to join Bob Wickman and Rafael Soriano in the Braves' bullpen. There were glimpses the trio would be dominant, but Gonzalez went down in May and had to have Tommy John Surgery. Then Wickman imploded in June and was finally designated for assignment in August. The bullpen was definitely better this season, but the heralded trio was not together very long.
But everything goes back to the starting pitching. Yes, many could argue that the Braves' biggest mistake was counting too much on Mike Hampton to begin with. But the day he got hurt this organization lost its bridge between two established top-of-the-rotation starters and younger kids trying to make their way. The countless band-aids placed in the rotation simply did not work, and it was the main reason this club was unable to get back to the playoffs.
Like every other team sitting home today instead of preparing for the playoffs, the Braves can point to these and other reasons for missing out. But the surprise and irony of the two main causes (mediocre starting pitching and the fall of Andruw Jones) makes it even more difficult to accept. It will also perhaps provide incentive for the front office to have an active offseason that can prevent it from happening again.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at email@example.com.
1. Why did the Braves not make the playoffs?
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